Governor presents a modest wish list
Crime, foreclosures, energy, bay on agenda
By Timothy B. Wheeler and Laura Smitherman

Sun reporters

January 24, 2008

 Gov. Martin O'Malley laid out a modest legislative agenda yesterday in his second State of the State address, urging lawmakers to help him fight violent crime, protect homeowners from foreclosure, ease the state's energy woes and protect the Chesapeake Bay.

The 29-minute speech to a joint session of the General Assembly and invited dignitaries in the House of Delegates chamber included no proposals for sweeping, big-ticket programs, nor did it stake out positions on hot-button issues that lawmakers are likely to face, such as the death penalty or gay marriage - though the governor did signal a willingness to tangle with powerful utilities over soaring electricity rates.

His remarks, broadcast live on radio and public television, represented O'Malley's first major opportunity to rebuild public support, badly weakened by voter anger over the tax increases he pushed through the legislature in last fall's special session.

"The most important days in life are not always the easy days," he said three times in his address, acknowledging the pain many Marylanders are feeling from a slowing economy and the state's efforts to balance its budget.

However, his effort to mollify unrest over his budget-balancing package was oblique. O'Malley never mentioned the words "tax" or "special session" - the issues chiefly responsible for the substantial drop in his job-approval rating in recent public opinion polls.

Instead, ticking off the higher prices that Marylanders are paying these days for everything from bread to health care, O'Malley acknowledged that the public is frustrated and has a right to be concerned about the future. The economic woes extend beyond Maryland, he noted, and he suggested that the state is likely to weather hard times better than others, as it has in past downturns.

He defended his efforts in the past year to "restore fiscal responsibility," recounting hundreds of millions in spending cuts made over the past year while making a glancing reference to "the other difficult choices on revenues," meaning $1.3 billion in tax increases.

As a result, he said, the state is stronger now, and he pledged to apply that strength to helping improve Marylanders' quality of life.

"The people of our state deserve a state government that works as hard as they do," he said.

Response to the speech fell largely along party lines, with the governor's fellow Democrats praising his effort and Republicans panning it.

"He hit the right buttons from the farmers to the returning veterans from overseas to the police, education, health care, the environment," Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said. In O'Malley's vow to do something about electricity costs, Miller saw a "major battle" brewing between the governor and utilities.

Del. Christopher B. Shank, a Western Maryland Republican and the minority whip, said O'Malley was right to say Marylanders are hurting.

"But what he failed to do is recognize that one of the reasons for the hurt is that he pushed one of the largest tax increases in Maryland's history through the General Assembly," Shank said.

O'Malley used most of his speech to urge legislators to support his policy agenda, which he unveiled over the past two weeks.

In response to the state's "unprecedented" rise in foreclosures, he promoted his proposal to reform the mortgage industry. He also reiterated his vow to freeze state university tuition for another year and to strengthen enforcement of the Critical Area Law, which limits development along the Chesapeake Bay.

The governor touched on a variety of themes, from building new schools and transit to promoting technology and making health care more affordable. But a major portion of his remarks returned to a theme that had launched his political career in Baltimore - fighting crime.

Calling public safety "the most fundamental priority and responsibility of any government," he said state officials have the opportunity to make Maryland one of the safest states in the country, rather than the one with the fifth-highest violent crime rate.

"This problem of ours, this problem of Maryland's, is not the concern of one race or one city or one county," O'Malley said. "It is everyone's problem."

In addition to the expanded DNA testing of criminal suspects that he has previously proposed, O'Malley called for adding 50 more parole and probation officers, building "a minimal number" of juvenile justice facilities to replace the ones recently closed and expanding electronic tracking, drug treatment and intervention programs for troubled youths.

The governor also vowed to press on with developing a "long-term plan" for energy generation, distribution and conservation, while continuing to work to reduce electricity rates - another issue for which voters have faulted him.

He pledged to pursue legislative, regulatory "and legal if need be" efforts to curb rates and ensure adequate supply - indicating more clashes looming with Constellation Energy Group Inc. and other utilities and businesses over undoing the 1999 energy deregulation law.

"Deregulation has failed us in Maryland," O'Malley said, "And we cannot allow our future to be determined by that mistake."

O'Malley delivered the speech in an unemotional tone, reading frequently from a text on a lectern and deviating little from the script. It lacked the oratorical flourishes the governor often uses in major speeches, though O'Malley did incorporate a lengthy quote from Robert F. Kennedy, whom the governor has frequently mentioned as an inspiration, about society's collective responsibility to eliminate violence.

"It was a good speech," said Comptroller Peter Franchot. "The governor always gives a good speech."

But Franchot, who has publicly sparred with O'Malley over the wisdom of pushing through major tax cuts during a special session, said Maryland "is not immune" from a weakening national economic outlook, and said he believes that O'Malley's tax cuts have further weakened Maryland's economy.


Sun reporter Gadi Dechter contributed to this article.

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